Monday 13 October 2014

Ghost in the Shell

Shirow Masamune, 1989-1997 [Frederick L. Schodt and Toren Smith, 2009, 2010]
(October 2014)

While we’re on the subject of Japanese-inspired cyberpunk (and isn’t it all, really), it seems the sensible thing to do is to head back to one of the ur-examples of the genre. Big hair, massive shoulder pads, cranial jacks, and high-legged swimsuits worn as daywear: late-eighties SF in a single sentence, ladies and gentlemen.

I should make it clear at this point that we’ll be primarily discussing the first of these books (though for what it’s worth I’m aware that there’s a pretty well received movie and a TV series or two, none of which I’ve seen). The second, Man-Machine Interface­, is a nominal sequel and is an appalling mess of a thing that would be downright offensive were it not so utterly fucking tedious. By way of some sort of justification for this omission, I give you the panel below, which is one of the least incomprehensibly ridiculous in the book –

So we’ll be ignoring that one, then.

Ghost in the Shell’s original series ran from 1989-1990 and the art must be described as ‘of its time’. It’s pretty frantic and – despite all the gratuitous crotch shots, the ridiculous knicker-wearing nurses, and the frankly implausible mammary physics – is a curiously sexless thing. Apparently a couple of pages of this edition were exorcised during translation on account of a sex scene, but even so what comes through is the aggressively asexual nature of all that tits and ass.

Our heroine is Major Motoko Kusanagi, the cyborg commander of an elite counter-terroist-cybercrime Special Forces unit, and as pretty much the only female character in the book she is objectified remorselessly. I realize the observation that manga has issues with female representation is a bit like noting that getting shot in the face must sting a bit, but I’m still relatively new to this and what’s surprising to me is just how unsexy it all is. Motoko and the occasional fuckbots who comprise most of the other depictions of women possess as much allure as an unclothed shop-window mannequin. This is the reductio ad absurdum of female objectification, as women are rendered with all the improbably featureless physicality of a factory-nude Barbie doll; as disposable commodities to be observed and toyed with, but not genuinely interacted with on what must surely be the most basic of human levels. I get that there’s a certain element of wish-fulfillment here, but who’d wish for this? Who has a sexual fantasy devoid of sex organs and thus actual sex? This is a rhetorical question, of course, because the well-worn answer is, ‘People who find genuine female sexuality threatening’.

Obviously I’ve searched for the censored pages on the internet, and I’d be lying if I said they were anything to get worked up about (because cartoon porn, seriously?) but I’d argue that their removal is more offensive than their inclusion would have been. At least in the original Motoko got to use her sexyparts for actual sexytimes, in the censored version she’s been both graphically and narratively neutered; her moronically over-exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics are thus wholly gratuitous, serving absolutely no purpose other than as objects for the male-gaze. If you’re going to give a character some sort of outstanding attributes then they should at least get to use them. Chekov’s Genital, if you like.

This is all a bit of a shame, because the rest of the stuff here (in the first book, remember, the first) is pretty damn good. When I said the art was ‘frantic’ that wasn’t a pejorative; when it works, which is more often than not, there’s an undeniable sense of movement and urgency, and the occasional stiller sections stand as archetypal examples of how cyberpunk should be done. The story itself runs along smoothly with just enough in the way of twists and turns to justify the philosophical musings on identity and the nature of self that appear a touch abruptly in the final couple of chapters, and throughout it all there’s a palpable sense of fun. Admittedly this often leads to slightly jarring tonal mismatches but at least it helps things trip along at a reasonable pace without getting too bogged down in weightier musings. It’s just disappointing that it’s all so inseparable from the by-now wearingly familiar tropes of otaku-insecurity, mummy-issues, and misogyny. And then it gets worse…


  1. Over a decade ago, I had a pretty respectable DVD collection back home, and the only two animated feature films I had from Japan in the collection were "Akira" and "Ghost in the Shell." "Akira" was (and I suspect still is) one of those movies that got played at midnight on certain Fridays (with cosplay in the aisles) at one of many old, run-down movie houses that somehow manage to stay in business in Portland, Oregon. Maybe they do the same with "Ghost in the Shell", who knows?...
    I saw both of these when I was much younger and much more impressionable, and even though the glaring examples of how the writer most likely had spent very little time in the presence of actual women (in the bedroom or otherwise) are more obvious to me now, I still have a fondness for the film. I suppose I should have a look at the manga...

    1. Ah, Akira. That video got passed around all the 'alternative' kids at school. Can't remember much of it except a vague feeling that I should be seen to like it, but not really finding it much cop at all. Would be interesting to see how I find it now.

      It appears that the filme versions (or at least the first one) of GitS are better regarded than the manga, so you're probably not missing out on too much if you don't track down the comic. I'm starting to think that Japanese SF in general lends itself much better to film than paper lots of cool ideas and potentially interesting characters surrounded by lots of inconsequential flab that needs to be trimmed. Nothing like a film adaptation to get to the heart of things (possibly).

  2. I fondly remember reading these in the '90s, It actually was through Ghost in the Shell that I came to the realization that Manga was not necessarily limited to kiddie comics and panty shots. I also remember following up by reading other works by Masamune Shirow (Orion, Appleseed, Black Magic) and remarking on the general asexuality of his works, or rather on the fact that sex did not play a significant role in them. His characters do retain gender and sexuality but from what I remember generally live their relations in an adult (Appleseed) or innocently non-sexual manner (Orion).
    Now, Ghost in the Shell is clearly different in style and characterization but I would hesitate to label the cause as misogyny, couldn't this rather be the case of the artist actually doing his job and reflecting what he sees in society through his work?
    Interestingly enough male characterization is completely different, and positive characterization is achieved by giving men an highly individualized honest, salt-of-the-earth look while female as you pointed out are depicted as basically identical plastic puppets. In the end the contrast is beneficial to the story as Motoko emerges not only because she is the protagonist but also because she is the only woman in the entire comic.

    1. Hey! Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I've seen Appleseed mentioned a few times while I was digging around online for this post and it certainly looks intriguing. I am, however, going to strongly disagree with the rest of your comment.

      Just because the artist is 'reflecting society' as he sees it doesn't mean it's not misogynist. It might be an explanation for that misogyny, but it's not an excuse. I'd also point out that one of the characters is literally a brain in a box, which is not a feature of any society I know of. If you're going to make stuff up so flagrantly, then 'that's just the way society is' doesn't really work as an excuse.

      " men an highly individualized honest, salt-of-the-earth look while female as you pointed out are depicted as basically identical plastic puppets."

      This is not a sentence that helps your claim that the book is not misogynistic. I've been trying for two days now, and I really haven't been able to think of a better example of storytelling misogyny in action than this. I think what you're trying to say is that sexist depictions can be acceptable in service of creating a better tale, and if those attitudes were discussed or critiqued in any way by the story then you might (might) be able to make a case for that. They're not though. The book is wholly uncritical of the attitudes it presents and is weaker for it.

      That's not to say it's a bad book, of course, or that we're bad people for liking it, but there's not point trying to pretend there aren't problems with it when there so clearly are.

    2. At this point I am ready to concede the point that setting, the story and even the book may be a tad mysogynistic. After all it's been a few years since I last read the book and I am obviously seeing it through the rose tinted glasses of youthful memories.
      What I continue to cling to is the convinction that Shirow's storytelling is not, as a general rule, mysogynistic.
      Unfortunately I am not sure how I can reconcile that with is work as an illustrator which, as a google search willl show, seems to be extremely "artistic".

      In the end the best thing for me may be to leave this last question unanswered and continue to appreciate Shirow for what he is: an extremely gifted professional.